Monthly Archives: January 2017

Friday 13th and the Long-Term Cost of False Alarms

If the prospect of flooding along the East Coast of England earlier this month was hard to forecast, the newspaper headlines the next day were predictable enough:

Floods? What floods? Families’ fury at evacuation order over storm surge … that never happened (Daily Mail)

East coast residents have derided the severe storm warnings as a ‘load of rubbish’ (The Guardian)

Villagers shrug off storm danger (The Times)

The police had attempted an evacuation of some communities and the army was on standby. This was because of warnings of a ‘catastrophic’ North Sea storm surge on January 13 for which the UK Environment Agency applied the highest level flood warnings along parts of the East Coast: ‘severe’ which represents a danger to life. And yet the flooding did not materialize.

Water levels were 1.2m lower along the Lincolnshire coast than those experienced in the last big storm surge flood in December 2013, and 0.9m lower around the Norfolk towns of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. Predicting the future in such complex situations, even very near-term, always has the potential to make fools of the experts. But there’s a pressure on public agencies, knowing the political fallout of missing a catastrophe, to adopt the precautionary principle and take action. Imagine the set of headlines, and ministerial responses, if there had been no warnings followed by loss of life.

Interestingly, most of those who had been told to evacuate as this storm approached chose to stay in their homes. One police force in Essex, knocked on 2,000 doors yet only 140 of those people registered at an evacuation centre. Why did the others ignore the warnings and stay put? Media reports suggest that many felt this was another false alarm.

The precautionary principal might seem prudent, but a false alarm forecast can encourage people to ignore future warnings. Recent years offer numerous examples of the consequences.

The Lessons of History

Following a 2006 Mw8.3 earthquake offshore from the Kurile Islands, tsunami evacuation warnings were issued all along the Pacific coast of northern Japan, where the tsunami that did arrive was harmless. For many people that experience weakened the imperative to evacuate after feeling the three-minute shaking of the March 2011 Mw9 earthquake, following which 20,000 people were drowned by the tsunami. Based on the fear of what happened in 2004 and 2011, today tsunami warnings are being ‘over-issued’ in many countries around the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

For the inhabitants of New Orleans, the evacuation order issued in advance of Hurricane Ivan in December 2004 (when one third of the city’s population moved out, while the storm veered away), left many sceptical about the mandatory evacuation issued in advance of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 (after which around 1500 drowned).

Agencies whose job it is to forecast disaster know only too well what happens if they don’t issue a warning as any risk looms. However, the long-term consequences from false alarms are perhaps not made explicit enough. While risk models to calculate the consequence are not yet available, a simple hypothetical calculation illustrates the basic principles of how such a model might work:

  • the chance of a dangerous storm surge in the next 20 years is 10 percent, for a given community;
  • if this happens, then let’s say 5,000 people would be at grave risk;
  • because of a recent ‘false’ alarm, one percent of those residents will ignore evacuation orders;
  • thus the potential loss of life attributed to the false alarm is five people.

Now repeat with real data.

Forecasting agencies need a false alarm forecast risk model to be able to help balance their decisions about when to issue severe warnings. There is an understandable instinct to be over cautious in the short-term, but when measured in terms of future lives lost, disaster warnings need to be carefully rationed. And that rationing requires political support, as well as public education.

[Note: RMS models storm surge in the U.K. where the risk is highest along England’s East Coast – the area affected by flood warnings on January 13. Surge risk is complex, and the RMS Europe Windstorm Model™ calculates surge losses caused by extra-tropical cyclones considering factors such as tidal state, coastal defenses, and saltwater contamination.]

After the devastating 2015 earthquake how is Nepal recovering?

It’s more than 20 months since a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal in April 2015, swiftly followed by another earthquake of magnitude 7.3 the next month.

Nearly 9,000 people died. More than 600,000 houses were destroyed and around 290,000 were damaged, according to the United Nations.

On the face of it local people now appear to be getting on with life as normal but look closer and reminders of the disaster are never far away. Whether it be a snaking crack in a wall, large enough to put an arm through – or the still air now taking the space where temples once stood.

International donors have pledged some $4 billion following the earthquake but this is yet to produce the required progress in Nepal’s rebuilding or significantly improve the life of people on the ground.

Framing of a schoolhouse in village hit by earthquake

The scale of the damage is huge and the reconstruction costs – to a country already poor – are overwhelming. The challenge is to rebuild in a way that makes Nepal more resilient to future earthquakes which, in such a seismically active region, are more a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’.

The capital, Kathmandu, wasn’t affected as badly as many feared but as you head out into the hills you see conditions deteriorate considerably. Partially collapsed buildings and piles of rubble are a common sight. Rural Nepalese houses normally consist of three stories, with the first used for livestock, the second for living and the third for agricultural use. These tall buildings are made from heavy and brittle materials, typically stone and mud mortar, which produce a vulnerability to earthquake to match that in many other regions of the world.

Earthquake damage to a traditional three-story house

Recently I saw the damage for myself. Along with four of my RMS colleagues, I travelled to Nepal to support Build Change’s work to strengthen the resilience of rural communities. It’s an organization focussed on helping people in developing countries make their homes and schools better able to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes.

Immediately after the 2015 Nepal earthquake it deployed teams to the affected areas to perform surveys of the damage and validate engineering assumptions as to why some buildings remain standing when others had collapsed.

Build Change’s site engineers oversaw the retrofitting and rebuilding work carried out by local builders who themselves had been trained by Build Change. Being scientists and engineers, the RMS team was impressed to see the high quality of workmanship and design, the positive response of Build Change’s staff to our suggestions for incremental improvements – as well as the engagement of the wider community.

RMS and Build Change staff advise on house retrofitting

And on a personal level, it was this community which made an especially powerful impression on me. Kindness and generosity were shown by the Nepalese who have been hit so hard, yet are so willing to share – we were routinely offered food by the local people who were so interested to know why there are foreigners in their village. Perhaps they took hope from seeing that they hadn’t been forgotten.

Money is not abundant in Nepal, but the engineering expertise is developing. And along with this expertise there is more than enough human grit and determination among the Nepalese people to rebuild their country stronger.

The Cost of Shaking in Oklahoma: Earthquakes Caused by Wastewater Disposal

It was back in 2009 that the inhabitants of northern Oklahoma first noticed the vibrations. Initially only once or twice a year, but then every month, and even every week. It was disconcerting rather than damaging until November 2011, when a magnitude 5.6 earthquake broke beneath the city of Prague, Okla., causing widespread damage to chimneys and brick veneer walls, but fortunately no casualties.

The U.S. Geological Service had been tracking this extraordinary outburst of seismicity. Before 2008, across the central and eastern U.S., there were an average of 21 earthquakes of magnitude three or higher each year. Between 2009-2013 that annual average increased to 99 earthquakes in Oklahoma alone, rising to 659 in 2014 and more than 800 in 2015.

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During the same period the oil industry in Oklahoma embarked on a dramatic expansion of fracking and conventional oil extraction. Both activities were generating a lot of waste water. The cheapest way of disposing the brine was to inject it deep down boreholes into the 500 million year old Arbuckle Sedimentary Formation. The volume being pumped there increased from 20 million barrels in 1997 to 400 million barrels in 2013. Today there are some 3,500 disposal wells in Oklahoma State, down which more than a million barrels of saline water is pumped every day.

It became clear that the chatter of Oklahoma earthquakes was linked with these injection wells. The way that raising deep fluid pressures can generate earthquakes has been well-understood for decades: the fluid ‘lubricates’ faults that are already poised to fail.

But induced seismicity is an issue for energy companies worldwide, not just in the South Central states of the U.S.. And it presents a challenge for insurers, as earthquakes don’t neatly label themselves ‘induced’ and ‘natural.’ So their losses will also be picked up by property insurers writing earthquake extensions to standard coverages, as well as potentially by the insurers covering the liabilities of the deep disposal operators.

Investigating the Risk

Working with Praedicat, which specializes in understanding liability risks, RMS set out to develop a solution by focusing first on Oklahoma, framing two important questions regarding the potential consequences for the operators of the deep disposal wells:

  • What is the annual risk cost of all the earthquakes with the potential to be induced by a specific injection well?
  • In the aftermath of a destructive earthquake how could the damage costs be allocated back to the nearby well operators most equitably?

In Oklahoma detailed records have been kept on all fluid injection activities: well locations, depths, rates of injection. There is also data on the timing and location of every earthquake in the state. By linking these two datasets the RMS team was able to explore what connects fluid disposal with seismicity. We found, for example, that both the depth of a well and the volume of fluid disposed increased the tendency to generate seismic activity.

Earthquakes in the central U.S. are not only shallow and/or human-induced. The notorious New Madrid, Mo. earthquakes of 1811-1812 demonstrated the enormous capacity for ‘natural’ seismicity in the central U.S., which can, albeit infrequently, cause earthquakes with magnitudes in excess of M7. However, there remains the question of the maximum magnitude of an induced earthquake in Oklahoma. Based on worldwide experience the upper limit is generally assumed to be magnitude M6 to 6.5.

Who Pays – and How Much?

From our studies of the induced seismicity in the region, RMS can now calculate the expected total economic loss from potential earthquakes using the RMS North America Earthquake Model. To do so we run a series of shocks, at quarter magnitude intervals, located at the site of each injection well. Having assessed the impact at a range of different locations, we’ve found dramatic differences in the risk costs for a disposal well in a rural area in contrast to a well near the principal cities of central Oklahoma. Reversing this procedure we have also identified a rational and equitable process which could help allocate the costs of a damaging earthquake back to all the nearby well operators. In this, distance will be a critical factor.

Modeling Advances for Manmade Earthquakes

For carriers writing US earthquake impacts for homeowners and businesses there is also a concern about the potential liabilities from this phenomenon. Hence, the updated RMS North America Earthquake Model, to be released in spring 2017, will now include a tool for calculating property risk from induced seismicity in affected states: not just Oklahoma but also Kansas, Ohio, Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Alabama. The scientific understanding of induced seismicity and its consequences are rapidly evolving, and RMS scientists are closely following these developments.

As for Oklahoma, the situation is becoming critical as the seismic activity shows no signs of stopping: a swarm of induced earthquakes has erupted beneath the largest U.S. inland oil storage depot at Cushing and in September 2016 there was a moment magnitude 5.8 earthquake located eight miles from the town of Pawnee – which caused serious damage to buildings. Were a magnitude 6+ earthquake to hit near Edmond (outside Oklahoma City) our modeling shows it could cause billions of dollars of damage.

The risk of seismicity triggered by the energy industry is a global challenge, with implications far beyond Oklahoma. For example Europe’s largest gas field, in the Netherlands, is currently the site of damaging seismicity. And in my next blog, I’ll be looking at the consequences.

[For a wider discussion of the issues surrounding induced seismicity please see these Reactions articles, for which Robert Muir-Wood was interviewed.]

Indonesia’s Protection Gap – How the Sumatra Earthquake Shows that Coverage Must Spread

On December 7, 2016, a shallow magnitude 6.5 earthquake struck northern Sumatra in Indonesia, severely damaging or destroying more than ten thousand homes and many businesses, as well as causing over a hundred deaths. The disaster struck a poorer area away from the major cities, where the standards of building design, construction methods, and material quality are not sufficient to withstand such an earthquake.

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USGS Shake map for Mw 6.5 Earthquake

We have up-to-date research on local building design and construction practices in Indonesia, which we have incorporated into the latest version of the RMS® Indonesia Earthquake Model. This research was done last year when members of the RMS vulnerability team, including me, visited southeast Asia as part of the process to update the model. We held workshops with local earthquake engineering experts who practice there, and attended an earthquake engineering conference, as well as visiting commercial and industrial buildings, including those under construction, to see first-hand how they were designed and built.

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A workshop with local experts

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International Conference – Jogja Earthquake in Reflection (May, 2016)

This on-the-ground research provided insights into Indonesia’s rules and practices around construction, seismic design, code enforcement, as well as information on the relative quantities of different types of buildings in the country. We discovered significant differences between mainstream construction and those buildings covered by earthquake insurance, namely:

  • Past earthquakes have demonstrated that single family dwellings and/or low rise buildings are the most vulnerable building types compared to those built for commercial and industrial use, because of a lack of engineering design, poor construction, and lower material quality.
  • Buildings outside of major cities are mostly low rises and they may not be designed for earthquake risk.
  • Major cities such as Jakarta, Bandung, and Surabaya enforce a strict structural design review process for the construction of mid- and high-rise buildings.
  • Insurance penetration rates are higher for commercial and industrial buildings in and near major cities, with much lower penetration for residential properties in rural areas.

It’s perhaps not surprising that if poorer communities have less insurance protection, that they also cannot afford to invest in the higher quality construction that is designed to better withstand earthquakes. This is one of the primary reasons for the ‘protection gap’. As these countries become more developed, there’s the potential for that gap to start closing. In fact, Indonesia is one of the fastest growing economies in southeast Asia, with the property insurance and (re)insurance market expanding rapidly.

But as the earthquake disaster demonstrated, there are still many poorer regions with low insurance penetration which are also prone to repeated natural disasters. Sadly, there is still a long way to go before people in those places benefit from the resilience in their built environment which other, richer parts of the world may take for granted.

Exceedance 2017 Is Coming to New Orleans!

Welcome to the first in a series of blogs leading up to Exceedance 2017, March 20-23.

We’re looking forward to the event, which will be held at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. Situated less than a mile from the historic French Quarter, and about a mile-and-a-half from Jackson Square, it’s a great location in the heart of the ‘Big Easy.’

This year’s theme, ‘Create Resilience,’ reflects the strength and spirit of New Orleans, including the tremendous progress made in the ten years since the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Exceedance 2017 will emphasize how innovation, analytics, and ingenuity can create more resilience in our global catastrophe risk management practices.

Hands-On Training for Risk Modeler on the RMS(one) Platform and Version 17

With the release of Risk Modeler on the RMS(one)® platform and Version 17 upcoming in April, this year’s Exceedance schedule is focused on training and enablement. It’s the only place to get key insights into these new RMS releases – and be trained to assess risk more effectively.

Exceedance2017Exceedance will feature over 22 speakers and provide many opportunities to dive deep into more than 20 new models, including North America Earthquake, North Atlantic Hurricane, and major advances in science, software, and HD-simulation models.

The agenda is designed to provide attendees with all the information they need for our new solutions developed for a rapidly changing market. Solutions that will increase operational effectiveness, agility, resilience, and business growth.

Take Some Time to Have Some Fun

Along with experiencing all there is to see and learn at Exceedance, there are plenty of opportunities to relax and have some fun with the following pre-conference activities:

Golf at TPC Louisiana: Enjoy a round at TPC Louisiana, rated one of Golfweek’s “Best Courses You Can Play.” It’s a great place for you and your colleagues to experience a one-of-a-kind day on a championship golf course.

Tour the Lower 9th Ward: Join the Make It Right Foundation for a walking tour of the Lower 9th Ward. You’ll experience first-hand how innovative partnerships and community-led design sessions are transforming the neighborhood that was most devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Horse-Drawn Carriage Ride and Cooking Class: Journey through the French Quarter by carriage, where you’ll pass through the city’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French and Spanish architecture. Then, satisfy your appetite with chef extraordinaire Amy Sins who will guide you through an interactive culinary experience that ends with a delectable meal.

Spirits and Spirits – an Evening Tour: Take a guided evening stroll through the spooky side of the old French Quarter. You’ll hear tales from the city’s storied history, and perhaps even encounter a ghost or two. Then enjoy local cocktail favorites at one of New Orleans’s oldest restaurants, a former Spanish armory.

To learn more about these events, visit the Exceedance website. If you’re ready to register, fill out your form.

Exceedance will be here soon, so look for our next blog in two weeks. It will include the latest information on the session tracks and content, as well as details of the keynote speakers.

Customers Adopt Solutions on the RMS(one) Platform

Exposure Manager, the first solution on the RMS(one)® platform, launched in July and has created great momentum in the market.

Insurance and reinsurance firms using Exposure Manager gain a clearer view of risk accumulations. With insight into their diverse set of exposures in both modeled and non-modeled regions, they are able to better manage exposure concentrations, and can help avoid private catastrophes.

Today, we announced that Mitsui Sumitomo Marine Management has chosen Exposure Manager to strengthen its risk accumulation management, taking a “big data” approach for dynamic exposure management. They are among the first in a wave of companies to adopt Exposure Manager to minimize blind spots in their risk portfolios.

Since July, we’ve been previewing some of the other solutions due out on the RMS(one) platform – from one-on-one meetings with clients leading all the way up to the main stage at Exceedance 2017 (registration is now open!). Our customers are in various stages of evaluating and adopting RMS(one) solutions and are excited to capitalize on the advantages that these solutions will bring.

As one of the many ways we are helping customers along their adoption journeys, we recently held our first Hack Event, Powered by RMS(one). Our customers in the London market attended a full-day session to understand their options, choose the right solution for their business goals, and map out adoption strategies. Due to the event’s success, we will be holding additional Hack Events in the coming months as we march toward releases for a full suite of solutions on the RMS(one) platform.

We will share more as customers continue to implement solutions on the RMS(one) platform and realize business benefits as we all work toward a common goal of building a more resilient global society.

Learn how to build portfolio intuition faster and access metrics that matter with Exposure Manager.